It’s vanishingly rare for Narendra Modi to directly field live questions from the press throughout a near decade in power. So when the Indian prime minister took two questions from reporters at a White House press event with Mr. Biden on Thursday, it was a notable moment.
From the beginning of his time in office, Mr. Modi and his staff have been fastidious about controlling his message, and trying to regulate the media, basically. Though he loves speeches at public events, and has leaned into his monthly radio show as a solution to deliver messages to the nation, any exposure to unscripted events had been a rarity before the White House event, and doubtless can be again afterward.
Mr. Modi’s aides insist that social media, which his party’s vast communications apparatus has mastered, has made news conferences redundant. And other arms of the federal government do engage with reporters.
Mr. Modi’s shying away from media engagement goes back to his time as chief minister of Gujarat a long time ago. Under his watch, the state broke into widespread riots in 2002, and Mr. Modi was accused of looking away — and even enabling — Hindu mobs who went on deadly rampages in Muslim neighborhoods.
Mr. Modi had long rejected any wrongdoing. But he has also publicly said that his biggest failure during that point was that he couldn’t control the media — something he has assiduously pursued since then.
Dangling incentives of presidency promoting and applying the pressure tactics of tax raids and arrests, he has bent large sections of India’s media, particularly broadcast media, to his will to such an extent that almost all outlets confine themselves to doling out his official line.
In 2015, Mr. Modi did take a few questions during a joint news conference with President Barack Obama. In recent times, perhaps the closest he has come to participating in a proper news conference was on the day of his re-election in 2019, where he appeared on the rostrum for one. But even then, he only made a gap statement. Who answered the actual questions? His right-hand man, Amit Shah, who’s now India’s powerful home minister.